EVANSTON, Ill. — No. 2 Northwestern jetted to a 7-1 lead to open its quarterfinal game against seventh-ranked and previously unbeaten Albany, and when the dust had settled, Northwestern had secured a seventh-consecutive trip to next weekend’s national semifinals with an 18-4 win over the Great Danes.
The Wildcats’ balanced attack was paced by Shannon Smith, who netted five goals for the fourth-consecutiive game and finished with six points overall. Erin Fitzgerald and Kelly Rich each contributed a hat trick to the cause, while the Wildcats defense limited Albany to just one second-half score.
Head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller will take a 26-2 career record in the NCAA Championship with her to the national semifinals, where NU will square off with third-seeded North Carolina. Northwestern battled to a 7-6 overtime win over the Tar Heels in the second game of the regular season back on Feb. 25.
“Obviously we are absolutely thrilled to make a trip back to the semifinals this year,” Amonte Hiller said. “We really focused in this week on playing smart, playing together and really just keeping our focus throughout the whole game. I think the girls did a great job with that.”
Northwestern’s 14-goal margin of victory represents its biggest win in the NCAA Championship since defeating UMass, 23-6, in the first round of the 2009 tournament, and was its largest ever in a quarterfinal game.
Shannon Smith agreed with the suggestion that this was the most complete 60 minutes Northwestern has played this season.
“We were really focused throughout the whole game,” Smith said. “We didn’t have dropped passes and on missed throws we were always there for ground balls. On defense when they got checks off, or when there were bad shots or passes from Albany, our team was there to get those ground balls on defense.”
Smith got things rolling with a shot from close range just 32 seconds into the game, and the Wildcats were back on the attack moments later off a caused turnover by junior Alex Frank. Frank moved the ball to senior Brooke Matthews, who coasted down the field and scored to give Northwestern a 2-0 advantage.
After Albany pulled one back, Jessica Russo stepped up and converted an 8-meter attempt, her 20th tally of the season. Smith then sandwiched a pair of unassisted scores around Rich’s first goal on a dodge on the left of the fan. Just two minutes later, sophomore All-ALC performer Taylor Thornton scooped up a ground ball on defense and took it the length of the field for Northwestern’s seventh goal of the game.
The Great Danes, who came into the contest allowing fewer than seven goals per game on the year, managed to score consecutive goals to cut the deficit to four. Albany also got a huge save on a wicked Shannon Smith underhand shot by goalkeeper Brett Yenger, who was standing in for regular starter Anna Berman.
But that would essentially be the end of the good news for the visitors as Northwestern orchestrated a 6-0 run — with goals from five different players — to put a stranglehold on the game. All 13 goals in the first half by Northwestern were of the unassisted variety, with the Wildcats taking advantage of open spaces in the Great Dane defense to dodge and create on the crease.
Northwestern’s 13 goals to finish the half tied marked the most it has scored in the first half this year and tied for the most in any frame.
Northwestern continued to dictate the pace in the second half, with Smith scoring five minutes into the half before setting up Fitzgerald at the 21:43 mark. Northwestern’s final three scores of the night all came off the sticks of freshmen, beginning with Kat DeRonda’s seventh of the year followed by Rich’s third of the evening. With 4:50 to play, defender Christy Turner got in on the action when she took a feed from DeRonda and put away her shot for the first goal of her Wildcat career.
Northwestern outshot Albany, the champions of the America East Conference, by a considerable margin of 28-9. The teams split 24 draw controls down the middle, including a team-best five by freshman Alyssa Leonard, but 11 caused turnovers by NU allowed the Wildcats to maintain the majority of possession.